In my head, I pictured myself looking like Bojack Horseman from that Season 3 episode, where he goes underwater to attend a film festival — a raft of bubbles blowing out from the mouthpiece, a layer of fog condensing each time you exhale through the nose, fish flying around like birds and your eardrums feeling the pressure as you go deeper. As a non-swimmer, once you get your feet (or technically, your entire body) wet, all that your smarts are able to do is marvel at the aquatic life, like a drop in the ocean. More on that later.
I was attending a first-of-its-kind scuba diving festival organised in Murudeshwar, a tiny coastal town in Karnataka. The beach town lies roughly 150 km from Mangalore, the closest airport. If you’re driving from Pune, it should take you around 12 hours including stoppages, while the same applies for Bengaluru. A popular pilgrimage site for its towering, 20-storey Sri Lokankara temple (yes, you can go all the way up using an elevator, for `5 per head) and a 123-foot Shiva idol built on the Kanduka Hill, Murudeshwar has now become a diver’s haven, for its proximity to Netrani island.
The festival had 150 participants, including numerous amateurs like yours truly. “Not only is it an accessible site, but the waters are also home to a vast variety of aquatic life. It has even had many dive centres operating for a while. No wonder Netrani is called the best dive site on the west coast of India. Plus, the state tourism department was also very enthusiastic about putting up the event,” said Ankit Saboo, one of the organisers of the fest. Along with his partner and certified diver Kshitij Mittal, he runs the Pune-based Finkick adventure company, which promotes underwater activities. Deep dive When a non-swimmer signed up for a dive at one of the best sites on India’s west coast.
Saboo encourages diving for non-swimmers, and his words were reassuring ahead of my first tryst with the open sea. What helped even further was the confidence inspired by my instructor Moin Nawaz of West Coast Adventures, a local diving operator. On board our 20-seater motorboat from the coast of Murudeshwar, we were headed 20 nautical miles east towards Netrani island. Nawaz passed on a set of safety instructions and hand signals during the hour-long journey. In due time, we had thankfully rehearsed enough to keep me alive under water. Or had we?
Suited up and resting on the beam of the boat, Nawaz then asked me to place the breathing device between my jaws. He flashed an A-okay sign, I nodded and in I went. With the weight of the oxygen cylinders resting on my back, I floated awkwardly on the surface, but my dive buddy Rohit patiently helped calm my nerves. I could feel the sunlight fading above me and a constant need to equalise (a breathing technique), as the water pressure (increasing with depth) compressed my eardrums. Before I had another panic attack, though, huge schools of fish swam past my mask and my attention shifted from what I couldn’t hear to what I could see. It was only a matter of time before I got comfortable and soon after, dabbing for the GoPros. Neither the cold waters nor the deafening compression was enough to deflate my spirits. Along with the rays, the nudibranchs, the eels and the tiger fish, I was a creature of the sea now.
Almost an hour passed before we came back to the surface, and my auditory senses slowly recaliberated to the density of air. Thanks to the clear skies, the sun shone bright on my drenched costume, as I made my way to the boat’s bow. My mind wandered back to a cliff-jumping site in Boracay, Philippines; it was the last time I felt such a rush. I would’ve smoked a cigarette (or maybe something else) had I been in a movie, but a handful of dry fruits was my reality.
The certified divers had climbed back onto the boat, but went underwater once again as we went around the heart-shaped island. Nawaz gave me company and narrated how he grew up in Qatar and got his diving certification nine years ago. He goes back to the Gulf during the off-season in Netrani, to dive commercially. “It’s been like any other day for us. People often choose Netrani over Goa because the waters are much cleaner here. Participants in the fest have brought a lot of energy with them. They are young and motivated and want to make the most of the opportunity,” he said.
The other divers were back, as we snacked together. On the way back to the mainland, I struck up a conversation with Raviraj Rodrigues from Bengaluru, seated next to me. A supply-chain professional with two decades of experience in the industry, he has logged a couple dozen dives since earning his certification in late 2016 from Goa. While visiting Netrani, he usually backpacks, with a sleeping bag by his side. Having done the basic openwater certification course, he has introduced many of his loved ones, including his wife and son, to the sport.
“After the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors)-certified beginners course, which costs around Rs 30,000, you can go for the Advanced, which costs another Rs 22,000. As for the equipment, I usually sign up for what the operators provide; it takes the cost of each dive to around Rs 5,000-6,000. Those who dive more frequently buy their own equipment, though. Starting from the basic critical equipment, priced at around Rs 10,000, they go for the personal protection equipment (Rs 70,000-80,000) and even the ancillary ones, depending on their requirement,” he said, as the hardware was being unloaded back onto Murudeshwar’s sands. Some picturesque landscapes at the time of sunset from the temple premises were followed by a sumptuous seafood meal at Nayak Fish Land (a must-visit, if you’re a non-vegetarian).
A diver couple from Pune was lodged in the same hotel as mine. Wafa Haji and Hitesh Sharma have logged around 17 dives since their certification course on the east coast of Sri Lanka in August 2016, followed by advanced training at Havelock Island (Andaman & Nicobar) a few months later. Wafa confesses it isn’t easy for a female to venture out to dive spots alone, due to the lack of proper facilities in India, but she does think that more women are picking up the sport. After all, it was Tamanna Balachandran, a 10- year old from Mumbai, who became the world’s youngest scuba diver not too long ago.
“It was our first time in Netrani and we will definitely come back when the visibility gets better. Our next target is to be able to log enough dives as per PADI norms to go on a live-aboard scuba holiday. Basically, you live on a boat close to the dive sites for however many days you want. All you do is eat, sleep and dive,” she said, as the divers headed for their customary post-dive get-together.
I went for a run on the beach the next morning, before heading for an early lunch at a nearby Bhatkal restaurant (famous for their biryanis). Saboo came to see me off at the hotel lobby and was sure that the increasing popularity of the sport in India (according to him, there are around 1.5 lakh certified divers in the country) can serve up a solution to the complaints of the fishermen community.
“The fest has involved them and educated them about diving. It has also helped clear many misconceptions, and the locals have come to acknowledge the tourism avenues it creates,” he said, adding “Given the support from both the government and the locals, we might just be back again for another edition next year.”
Murudeshwar-bound, I had little idea what awaited me at this small beach town. By the end of the weekend though, I had successfully completed an introductory scuba dive, learned that adventure-seekers from India have taken a strong liking for diving as a recreational sport, and overcome my lifelong fear of being eaten alive by a shark. I lived to dive again.